August 2016 Bar Bulletin
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August 2016 Bar Bulletin

For Transgender People, a New Name Adds Challenges

By Diana Mallon


In 2014, names were at the center of a social media controversy, as Facebook suspended, deleted or required verification for accounts of hundreds of LGBT individuals — particularly transgender people1 and drag performers — for failing to use their legal or “real” names on their profiles.2

LGBT people, people of color, and survivors of abuse and stalking responded, explaining the variety of reasons why they would use names besides their legal names on Facebook profiles, emphasizing that for many people their non-legal name is a more accurate reflection of who they are and how they are known in their communities.3 While Facebook eventually changed its process of evaluating the authenticity of the names its users select, the website’s “real names” policy still stands, and people are still often required to provide verification of their identities.4

Like Facebook, government agencies, businesses and other organizations often require people to navigate complex systems to effectively use their chosen names. Unfortunately, understanding these increasingly complex systems is essential to trans people’s ability to effectively execute a legal and practical name change.

When state actors — such as clerks, attorneys and judges — do not understand the unique challenges that transgender people face, navigating the system becomes increasingly difficult. Not only must trans people navigate the complex system, but frequently also must educate those with the authority to assist them. Therefore, when these actors lack understanding, it prevents trans people from effectively accessing their rights to bring their legal names and genders into alignment with their identities.5

An individual who wishes to change their6 name in Washington has two options. The first is a common law name change. This entails simply using their new name at all times and for all purposes.7 While this method is free and does not require judicial approval, it also fails to independently create effective documentation of the name change, so bringing other documents — such as a driver’s license and birth certificate — into consistency may be more difficult.

The second option is to secure a judicial order, generally in a District Court, rather than Superior Court.8 Changing one’s name by judicial order requires obtaining a court order, which can be used to change other legal documents to reflect a person’s new name. Anyone over the age of 18 can petition for a name change as long as they are not doing so in order to commit fraud.9

This involves appearing before a judge, stating one’s reasons for a name change, and paying a fee to the court, which varies by county. Indigent petitioners may apply for a waiver of filing fees, although certain costs, such as fees to record the name change once it has been ordered, cannot be waived.10 Individuals who have been convicted of a felony and are incarcerated or on probation may change their names, but must provide written notice to the Department of Corrections at least five days in advance of the name change.11

Depending on the individual’s need, securing a name change order can require interacting with a court, the clerk’s office, the ex parte department and another commissioner (if seeking a fee waiver), and a representative of the Department of Corrections (if incarcerated or on probation). Because each actor plays a critical role in the name change process, it is critical that each party is knowledgeable not only about procedure, but also how to treat transgender people with courtesy and respect in general.

By obtaining a court order, transgender people are then able to demonstrate that their names have been legally changed and can obtain new identification reflecting their new names. Obtaining one or more pieces of state-issued identification is an important (and often essential) step toward documenting name changes with other agencies, companies and organizations. In order to change one’s name with the Department of Licensing, a person must submit the court order and a $10 fee. The paperwork must be submitted in person.12

Many trans people will also change their gender marker when changing their names on state identification. A gender marker can be changed without a court order, by submitting a form completed by the individual and their health care provider, and a fee, to the Department of Licensing.13 Individuals must first submit a form by mail, then will receive a letter authorizing the change in gender marker, which can be presented online or in person with a $20 or $10 fee, respectively, to be issued an updated identification. This process can be completed at the same time as a name change.

Once a transgender person has changed their name on their birth certificate or state identification, they may still need to bring the rest of their identifying documents and accounts into consistency. This process can be costly, time consuming and fraught with barriers as a transgender person must register their name change on:

• all government documents such as passports, public benefits accounts and Social Security cards;

• all financial systems such as bank accounts, credit cards and loans;

• all non-government identifying documents such as student and work identifications, insurance accounts, and library cards; and

• any other systems that record or identify individuals by name, such as pharmacies, gyms, dentists, mechanics, and, as is increasingly important, social media profiles.

Clearly, this process can be overwhelming. Every agency and company can have its own procedure for changing names, so each name change requires interacting with a host of individuals with differing levels of familiarity with name change processes and procedures.14

Because changing one’s name is a complex and multi-step process, each office must be knowledgeable not only of name change procedure, but also appropriate treatment of transgender people. This ensures that every person is met with dignity and respect in the process.

For example, when interacting with transgender people who wish to change their names or gender markers, it is correct to always refer to them by their new names and use the pronouns that they indicate both in and out of their presence. If a person is changing their name and you are unsure which pronouns they use, it is appropriate to ask them and then use these pronouns consistently.

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